How to train employees to handle a crisis

Journalists often seek quotes from ‘insiders’—anyone who works there—when an organization is in a PR jam. Have you prepared staff at all levels on how to respond (or keep a lid on it)?

As any communicator who’s been through a serious crisis can attest, dealing with a damaging emergency and its aftermath is bad enough on its own.

What, though, can take a crisis from bad to utterly catastrophic in a nanosecond? Suddenly realizing your co-workers have not been advised or trained about contact with print or online journalists in such situations—with damaging results ensuing before the executive team’s very eyes, in real time.

Many organizations forget the power of their workforce in spreading company news.

Certainly, if the news is good, most companies want their employees shouting it from the rooftops. If the news is bad, employees can inadvertently (or quite purposefully) wield damaging impact through their own testimonials, whether it’s to a news reporter who has descended on the staff parking lot of your business or on a social media chime-in.

Download this free white paper, “Auditing your Internal Communications,” for a step-by-step guide to assess which communications channels work best for your organization.

Employees—regardless of their level or role within a company—are all viewed as “insiders.” Reporters will seek them out amid a crisis, particularly if management executives are opting not to be interviewed.

Employees can find themselves blindsided by new media inquiries directed personally to them (and journalists can be quite resourceful, calling your workers at home, showing up at their front door, etc.).

In another context, employees who—for whatever reason—have felt marginalized within their organizations for unrelated reasons might suddenly feel emboldened to use their newfound power as an “insider” to stick it to their employer without quite thinking through the ramifications of their actions.

In my experience, however, the vast majority of employees want to do the right thing and avoid undermining their employer.

The key to being proactive? Providing clear direction in the employee handbook is a great place to start, supplemented by employee training and periodic reminders about acceptable versus unacceptable employee responses to crises and the bloggers and journalists covering them.

Here are several tips:

1. Address this issue internally before a crisis happens. (Today would be ideal.) Waiting until an emergency transpires to discover whether employees are accurately informed and well prepared to avoid missteps sets up everyone to fail.

2. Evaluate your employee handbook and determine whether it’s missing an “Employee Contact with Members of the Media” and “Employee Use of Social Media” policy. Both are important. Even if these subject areas are covered, touch base with your human resources director and public relations director to see whether they should be updated, enhanced or clarified.

3. Contact outside sources of expertise, particularly if you don’t have in-house staff counsel in the areas of PR and strategic communications, legal affairs or human resources to advise you. Counsel specializing in employment law can be particularly helpful with setting or revising the parameters of employees’ use of social media.

4. As Mom always said, “It’s better to learn from others’ mistakes instead of making your own.” Use teachable moments from other organizations’ public handling of crises to educate your employees about the dos and don’ts of responding to difficult situations.

Having this conversation internally can shed light on other crisis preparedness issues your team ought to address. Check out our previous blog post to facilitate an honest look at what your organization must do toward larger crisis preparations.

Mary Beth West (@marybethwest) has more than 20 years of experience in strategic communications and has developed award-winning crisis communications plans for publicly traded companies and private concerns. She can be reached at mb@marybethwest.com. A version of this article originally appeared on MaryBethWest.com.

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